Tupac Shakur was one of the most dynamic, influential and self-destructive pop stars of the Nineties. The rapper's husky voice described his stark contradictions, setting misogyny against praise of strong women, hard-won wisdom against the violence of the "thug life" — words he had tattooed across his torso. The critical and commercial successes of his music (as well as his modest achievements as an actor) were continually overshadowed by his legal and personal entanglements. In Tupac's world, art and reality became tragically blurred, culminating with his 1996 murder in Las Vegas.
Shakur was the son of Black Panther Party members Billy Garland and Afeni Shakur (Shakur is Arabic for "thankful to God"), who was in jail (and later acquitted) on bombing charges while pregnant with him. Sometime after his birth, he was named Tupac Amaru, for an Incan chief whose name translates as "shining serpent."
Shakur spent his earliest years in the Bronx and Harlem, and at age 13 made his acting debut in a production of A Raisin in the Sun at an Apollo Theatre benefit for Jesse Jackson's 1984 presidential campaign. He spent the rest of his childhood moving around the country with his mother. He attended the Baltimore School of the Arts before dropping out and settling, at the age of 17, in Marin County, California.
The rapper then successfully auditioned to become a dancer and roadie for the rap group Digital Underground and simultaneously worked relentlessly on his own material. He appeared on that group's This Is an E.P. Release EP (1990) and Sons of the P (1991). In 1991 he signed with Interscope and released the album 2pacalypse Now (Number 64 pop, Number 13 R&B, 1992), a musical mixture of inner-city portraiture and messages of racial strength. An underground hit, the album spawned the single "Brenda's Got a Baby" (Number 23 R&B).
Shakur also became a successful actor in the early 1990s, appearing in Ernest Dickerson's Juice (1992) and Above the Rim (1994), and giving a critically acclaimed performance opposite Janet Jackson in John Singleton's Poetic Justice (1993). Despite a promising start and wide praise for his performances, the rest of his film work was far less acclaimed; he ended his acting career as James Belushi's sidekick in the mostly ignored Gang Related.
Shakur's second album, Strictly 4 My N.I.G.G.A.Z. (Number 24 pop, Number 4 R&B, 1993), yielded the hits "I Get Around" (Number 11 pop, Number 5 R&B, 1993) and "Keep Ya Head Up" (Number 12 pop, Number 7 R&B, 1993). He also released an album as part of the short-lived Thug Life group in 1994.
Even longer than Shakur's hit list, though, was his police blotter. In 1992 the rapper was arrested after a six-year-old California boy was killed by a stray bullet discharged during a scuffle between Shakur and two others. (A lawsuit filed by the boy's family was later settled out of court.) He was then charged in Atlanta with shooting two off-duty police officers in October 1993. Charges in both cases were dismissed. The following month Shakur and two members of his entourage were charged with sexual abuse following an incident in a New York luxury hotel.
In early 1994 he was found guilty of assault on Menace II Society codirector Allen Hughes and served 15 days in jail. By the end of the year, the rapper was found guilty of the sexual assault only a day after being shot by muggers in the lobby of a New York recording studio. He was later sentenced to one and half to four and a half years in prison. While his 1995 album Me Against the World (Number 1 pop, Number 1 R&B) headed to the top of the charts, Shakur headed for prison. Shakur became the first artist to reach Number 1 on the Billboard charts while serving a prison sentence. The hit single "Dear Mama" (Number Nine pop, Number Three R&B) suggested a depth of feeling that led some critics to reassess the rapper and his work.
By now Shakur was a lightning rod for a highly publicized West Coast vs. East Coast hip-hop feud. Shakur was released after serving just eight months of his sentence, the result of a parole arrangement and a $1.4 million bond paid by Death Row label CEO Marion "Suge" Knight. The rapper signed with Death Row in late 1995, soon releasing the dark, two-disc All Eyez on Me (Number 1 pop, Number 1 R&B, 1996). On the album, Shakur attacked his enemies with furious threats of violence, while speaking of his own early death as inevitable. The album also included "How Do You Want It" (Number 1 pop, Number 1 R&B), "California Love" (Number 6 pop) (with Dr. Dre and Roger Troutman), and "Hit 'Em Up," on which Shakur claimed to have slept with the Notorious B.I.G.'s wife, singer Faith Evans.
Then, on September 7, Shakur was shot near the Las Vegas Strip while riding in the passenger seat of Knight's BMW. The shooting came about two hours after a scuffle that involved Shakur and Knight in the lobby of the MGM Grand Hotel (an incident that ultimately led to Knight, 31, being handed a nine-year prison sentence for violating his parole). Six days later Shakur died from his injuries. He was 25. No arrests were ever made. In addition, despite calls within the hip-hop community to halt the violence, the Notorious B.I.G. was killed in a similar fashion six months later. No murder charges have been filed in either murder.
Like Elvis Presley and Jimi Hendrix before him, Shakur was soon the subject of a flood of posthumous album releases (and rumors suggesting that he faked his death). The first release was The Don Killuminati: The 7 Day Theory (Number One pop, Number One R&B, 1996), released under the pseudonym Makaveli. It was followed by R U Still Down? (Remember Me) (Number Two pop, Number 1 R&B, 1997), released on Amaru/Jive, an imprint headed by his mother.
In 1997 his estate began a war of lawsuits against Death Row, complaining of $150 million in unpaid royalties, demanding the return of more than 150 unreleased master recordings, and a voiding of the rapper's contract with the label. A 1998 settlement awarded the tapes to Shakur's estate, which sanctioned the release that year of Greatest Hits (Number Three pop, Number One R&B); it includes "Unconditional Love" (Number 73 R&B, 1998) and "Changes" (Number 32 pop, Number 12 R&B, 1999). "Do for Love" (Number 21 pop, Number 10 R&B, 1998) appears on R U Still Down? In 2001 the fourth posthumous collection, Until the End of Time, debuted at Number 1.
With 2002 came another subpar collection, Better Dayz, a guest-filled affair that combined leftover verses and remixes from Shakur's "Makaveli" period. The collection did spawn one hit single, "Thugz Mansion" with Nas and J. Phoenix, and fans' insatiable appetite for unreleased Tupac material helped Better Dayz reach double platinum status. The soundtrack to the documentary Tupac Resurrection followed in 2003, with producers like Eminem and Johnny "J" remixing tracks from throughout Tupac's career. Eminem's production also served as the backbone for 2004's Loyal to the Game, a collection of unreleased Tupac verses combined with guest spots from the likes of Elton John, G-Unit and Slim Shady himself. Loyal to the Game topped the Billboard Top 200 upon its release.
To commemorate the 10th anniversary of Shakur's death, 2006's Pac's Life fused 13 more unreleased Shakur recordings with top notch production from Swizz Beatz and Sha Money LX. T.I. and Ashanti contributed to the album's most notable single, "Pac's Life," while Tupac admirers like Snoop Dogg, Ludacris and Chamillionaire also appear. The two-part greatest hits collection Best of 2Pac followed in 2007 with a minimal chart impact. In 2008, the rights Death Row's master tapes were sold to new ownership, and with it another batch of unreleased Tupac recordings were unearthed, all but ensuring more posthumous releases in the new decade.
Portions of this biography appeared in The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll (Simon & Schuster, 2001). Daniel Kreps contributed to this story.